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No cheap trust

31 May 2013

THE Archbishop of Canterbury urged the lay chairs of diocesan synods last month to "get rid of" the "widespread suspicion and mistrust" to be found among members. "If that's in your mindset, you need to repent, because your job is to set an example of holiness; and mistrust and suspicion is not holy. It won't do, any more than it'll do in me; and I find that I'm tempted into that the whole time, and it's something that I have to watch constantly." He spoke about the reaction when the House produced its amendment to the women-bishops legislation last summer. The "complaints and accusations" that he had felt most acutely had been about "the lack of transparency". In response to these, and other complaints about the substance of the amendment, which was designed to reassure opponents, the House withdrew it. For lack of enough reassurance, the Measure then fell in the House of Laity.

Now that the House of Bishops has published the report of its working group, and its response, we can see the weight that its new plan places on trust. The legislation that the majority of the House regards as ideal removes existing provision for traditionalists, and asks them to trust that, once the Measure has been passed, suitable new provision, of a kind that many of them have said in the past is unacceptable, will be made. The report echoes the challenge to lay chairs. It talks about "grace, not law".

As a practical policy, "grace, not law" is of limited application; and the Church never relies on grace alone: hence canon law, which, in the awareness that all are sinners, often requires people to do what they ought to want to do. It should set the tone and the boundaries; and it is arguable that poor relations between the majority and minority on women's ordination are due to a failure to embrace the spirit of the legislation of 1992-93, compounded by the movement to repeal it. Trust will not be repaired throughout the Church by a few facilitated discussions. They can swing a vote, perhaps; and the temptation to cynicism that this idea presents is hardly eradicated by the experience of the contrast between the constructive small-group discussions of Synod members at York in July 2008, before the debate in full Synod in which they returned to playing what the Bishops call the "zero-sum game".

The Bishops' meeting was the first attended by participating observers from the senior women clergy. They will have sharpened the sense of urgency; but the Bishops are already feeling goaded by the warnings of parliamentarians. It is as well to remember, however, that the meeting was not attended by such a group from the House of Laity. That House could be pardoned for thinking that its views are being discounted; and, in a three-tier system, that is unwise. We have no other representative national body of the communicant laity. Nothing is more guaranteed to breed mistrust than to give the impression that so-called waverers, who voted as prayerfully as anyone else last November, are simply to be worked on.

Correction. Since the Leader above was written, we have been informed that the particpant observers are not yet attending the House of Bishops meetings. But women members of the working party were in attendance at the Bishops' meeting earlier this month.

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